In­no­va­tion made in Africa

Chronicle (Zimbabwe) - - Opinion/national News - Opin­ion Chief K Masimba Biri­washa

IN­NO­VA­TION has be­come a catch phrase when we dis­cuss Africa’s tra­jec­tory in the 21st cen­tury. Ev­ery­one talks about it. At the African In­no­va­tion Foun­da­tion’s fifth award cer­e­mony, in­no­va­tive so­lu­tions to African prob­lems were cel­e­brated.

A big ques­tion that has yet to be fully an­swered is whether in­no­va­tion can suf­fi­ciently de­liver the con­ti­nent’s long-held dreams and as­pi­ra­tions.

Or will in­no­va­tion just be­come another strand of the ‘ Africa ris­ing’ nar­ra­tive that ben­e­fits the elite and leaves the ma­jor­ity of the con­ti­nent’s peo­ple be­hind?

In to­day’s world of emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies and new so­lu­tions to old prob­lems, what does Africa need to do to be­come rel­e­vant?

How long are we go­ing to re­main con­sumers of in­no­va­tions that other peo­ple have sweated over?

Is there a case to be made for lo­cally driven so­lu­tions that ad­dress the fun­da­men­tal chal­lenges that the con­ti­nent faces?

These ques­tions weighed heav­ily on my mind when I re­cently par­tic­i­pated in the African In­no­va­tion Foun­da­tion’s land­mark pro­gramme, the In­no­va­tion Prize for Africa, held in Gaborone, Botswana, from June 22 to 24, 2016.

The award, now in its fifth edi­tion, was themed #MadeinAfrica and at­tracted peo­ple from the length and breadth of the con­ti­nent.

I found the in­no­va­tions that scooped the top prizes par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing, pro­vid­ing a sign­post to the kind of dis­rup­tive in­no­va­tion that needs to hap­pen to pro­pel the con­ti­nent for­ward.

On a con­ti­nent that has been plagued by dis­ease, it is no sur­prise that it was in­no­va­tive health­care so­lu­tions that scooped the top ac­co­lades.

The prize-win­ning so­lu­tions of­fer ground-break­ing re­sponses to Africa’s pre­vail­ing malaria and HIV and Aids bur­dens.

Dr Valentin Agon of Benin was the unan­i­mous win­ner of the US$100 000 Grand Prize for his in­no­va­tion ApiPalu, an anti-malaria drug treat­ment that has hit the mar­ket in Benin, Burk­ina Faso, Chad and the Cen­tral African Repub­lic (CAR).

Made from a nat­u­ral plant ex­tract, Api-Palu is sig­nif­i­cantly cheaper than the anti-malar­ial drugs cur­rently on the mar­ket.

It has great in­hibitory ef­fects on the 3D7 strains of plas­mod­ium fal­ci­parum, the causative agent of malaria.

Imo­gen Wright of South Africa scooped the sec­ond prize of US$25 000 for Ex­atype, a soft­ware so­lu­tion that en­ables health­care work­ers to de­ter­mine HIV-pos­i­tive pa­tients’ re­spon­sive­ness to ARV drug treat­ment.

The So­cial Im­pact Prize of US$25 000 was awarded to Dr Eddy Agbo of Nige­ria for his urine test for malaria, a rapid non-blood di­ag­nos­tic med­i­cal de­vice that can di­ag­nose malaria in less than 25 min­utes.

As is ev­i­dent from these prag­matic prize win­ners, prob­lems will be solved in Africa if we can ac­cel­er­ate in­no­va­tion, while re­tain­ing a fo­cus on im­prov­ing the lives and liveli­hoods of its peo­ple.

I am sure of the fact that peo­ple in Africa are more im­por­tant to driv­ing in­no­va­tion than the out­comes alone.

It is African peo­ple who should gen­er­ate dis­rup­tive ideas that have the po­ten­tial to dis­lo­cate es­tab­lished prac­tices. Like many other peo­ple, I thought for a long time that tech­nol­ogy was the ul­ti­mate ex­pres­sion of in­no­va­tion.

I have now come to the re­al­i­sa­tion that it is nec­es­sary to de­mys­tify the per­cep­tion that in­no­va­tion is some­thing that can only be un­der­taken by the su­per tal­ented, or that in­no­va­tion is purely tech­nol­o­gy­driven (gad­get-cen­tric).

Truly speak­ing, ev­ery­one can be an in­no­va­tor – it is peo­ple who make ideas.

What Africa needs is to in­stil a cul­ture of in­no­va­tion as an es­sen­tial part of ev­ery­day life, ac­cept­ing that fail­ure is part of the path­way that fi­nally gives birth to new ideas and tap­ping into the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of or­di­nary peo­ple at all lev­els.

We need to make in­no­va­tion rou­tine so that it in­volves the ac­tive par­tic­i­pa­tion of or­di­nary peo­ple.

As is ev­i­dent from these prag­matic prize win­ners, prob­lems will be solved in Africa if we can ac­cel­er­ate in­no­va­tion, while re­tain­ing a fo­cus on im­prov­ing the lives and liveli­hoods of its peo­ple.

Africa faces huge, multi-faceted chal­lenges. To over­come these prob­lems re­quires new, in­no­va­tive so­lu­tions.

These so­lu­tions must be in­formed and driven from the ground, by the needs of Africans them­selves.

In­no­va­tions that do not im­prove the lives and liveli­hoods of the peo­ple of Africa are doomed to fail.

Bot­tom-up ap­proaches that har­ness the mas­sive and beau­ti­ful en­ergy and spirit of Africans are key to in­cul­cat­ing a spirit of in­no­va­tion.

Help­ing to un­leash, chan­nel and con­nect the mil­lions of in­no­va­tive minds across all re­gions of Africa, all dis­ci­plines and all walks of life is a valu­able in­vest­ment, and a sure method to pro­pel the con­ti­nent for­ward.

Put sim­ply, build­ing a cul­ture of in­no­va­tion is a cer­tain way of sus­tain­ing Africa and the way we live, think, make and cre­ate.

Africa is al­ready tak­ing great strides in this di­rec­tion as she re-writes her suc­cess story.

In ad­di­tion, fos­ter­ing a spirit of in­no­va­tion in Africa re­quires con­nect­ing peo­ple so that they can share prob­lems, op­por­tu­ni­ties, pro­mote learn­ing and ex­change.

Ul­ti­mately, in­no­va­tion mat­ters for boost­ing growth and im­prov­ing the liv­ing stan­dards of the mil­lions of peo­ple in Africa.

From left: Dr Imo­gen Wright of South Africa, Dr Eddy Agbo of Nige­ria and Dr Valentin Agon of Benin

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